the story behind o come o come emmanuel

Christmas: The Story Behind “O Come O Come Emmanuel”

Hi, friends. This is the first hymn of three that we will analyze as Christmas swiftly approaches. The theme we are working with this year is “the expectation of a messiah in Israel.” [Please read the linked post if you are unfamiliar with this topic in order to understand my interpretations.]

History of the hymn

Narodenie, Slovakia, 1490. Depicts the inn outside the city wall.

The origins of this tune can be tied all the way back to the eighth century, which is when O Antiphons were created. O Antiphons are ritualitic chants that are used in Catholic church services in the week leading up to Christmas. The beginning of each verse in “O Come O Come Emmanuel” echoes each O Antiphon. The song’s original fives verses coincide with the first five O Antiphons–

  • “Veni, veni Emmanuel!” = “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”
  • “Veni, O Jesse Virgula” = “O Come, Thou Rod of Jesse”
  • “Veni, veni, O Oriens” = “O come, Thou Dayspring, from on High”
  • “Veni, clavis Davidica” = “O come, Thou Key of David, come”
  • “Veni, veni, Adonai” = “O come, Adonai, Lord of might”

At an unknown point later, the remaining two O Antiphons were adapted into two more verses enticing “Wisdom” and “Desire of Nations” to come. [The last O Antiphon actually reads “King of Peoples.”]

The Latin text of the song first appeared in Germany in 1710. Intriguingly, an English version was first paired with the tune “Veni Emmanuel” in an 1851 hymn book (ironic name for it, right?), yet John Mason Neale didn’t translate the version we are familiar with until 1861. Neale only translated those first five verses, though; the full English translation with all seven verses appeared in an Episcopal hymnal in 1940. The origin of the melody is unknown, but evidence shows it was referenced in a 15th century document, so we can be sure it’s existed for a long time.

Connecting the hymn with our theme

From the Chapel of St. Andrew, circa 500. Depicts Christ as a warrior crushing Satan; the inscription reads, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”

The lyrics to the first verse of this hymn reflect the expectation of a messiah in Israel as they call for a savior who will liberate the nation of Israel. This verse also refers to the Babylonian Exile. The fifth verse further echoes their expectations when it refers to God giving the law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. If we put these verses together, we may say that the Hebrews repent for forsaking the Law of Moses and wish to be saved from the exile; based on the circumstances and the prophecies, they expect a messiah to free them from the political powers that constrain them.

However, the other verses expand the expectation of a messiah to include qualities of Jesus that came but were not anticipated–first and foremost, “giving victory o’er the grave.” A messiah who would defeat sin and death is not what the Hebrews expected, but Jesus is the gift God gave all nations in His radical love and mercy. As the last verse reads, Jesus can “bind all peoples in one heart and mind.”

Considering the repetition of “Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel” alongside clear references to Old Testament events yet also unique attributes of Jesus, the author (intentionally or not) asserts that even if Jesus is not who and what the Hebrews expected, He IS their messiah…along with all peoples.

Lyrics:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan's tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory o'er the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Dayspring, from on high,
And cheer us by Thy drawing nigh;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death's dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Key of David, come
And open wide our heav'nly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Adonai, Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai's height,
In ancient times didst give the law
In cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
And order all things, far and nigh;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And cause us in her ways to go.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Desire of nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind;
Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease;
Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel. 

In my church’s hymnal, the verses are out of order, and the words in each verse besides the first are tweaked somewhat. Let me know if you see any glaring differences between this version and the one you sing at your church. The lyrics in the version pasted below vary slightly from the lyrics here AND those in my hymnal.

Thanks for reading!

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